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“Doctor Google,” Colleague or Competitor? New Physician Marketing Challenges

By Stewart Gandolf, Chief Executive Officer

doctor hands holding black suitcaseTwo snippets of recent healthcare news look like they are likely to collide with the next patient-physician encounter in your office. What’s more, they are loaded with potential physician marketing and communications challenges.

We’d like to hear about your experience and what you think about these two conflicting issues:

  • Google’s Symptom Search: aka “Doctor Google.”
  • Study says self-diagnosing patients often get it wrong.

[1] Google’s Symptom Search makes it easier for the patient to find information about medical conditions. Upwards of eight out of 10 people search online for health-related information…for themselves, family members or friends. That’s millions of searches each month, representing one of the top three most common online search topics. Looking for healthcare information usually begins with an online search, and Google—the unchallenged giant among search engines—does most of the searching.

Try this yourself. Our test search via Symptom Search for “headache and nosebleed” produced a bundle of “related searches” at the top of the results page. The medical conditions—Puberty, Psoriasis, High Blood Pressure, Angle Closure Glaucoma, and Rheumatoid Arthritis—were presented in 0.28 seconds.

What Google says: “For a search that seems to be about medical symptoms, our algorithms analyze the web search results to find health conditions that may be related to the symptoms in the query.” They add this consumer caution: “Diagnosis? No. We hope you'll find this useful, but the results here are a general reflection of content on the web, not medical advice. If you're concerned about a medical condition, please consult a healthcare professional.”

[2] Consumers often fear the worst. People that self-diagnose have a higher tendency of believing they suffer from a serious illness. This is according to findings to be published in the Journal of Consumer Research. The authors, from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, write: “In today’s wired world… symptom-matching exercises may lead consumers to overestimate the likelihood of getting a serious disease because they focus on their symptoms while ignoring the very low likelihood that their symptoms are related to any serious illness.”

And sensible advice from the researchers: "One of the easiest ways to get rid of this bias is to see a real doctor instead of Dr. Google. A real doctor possesses much more knowledge and will take the prevalence of a disease into consideration because she is viewing the patient from a distance. This will prevent symptoms from exerting a disproportionate influence on the diagnosis."

For additional notes: University of Chicago Press. [Dengfeng Yan and Jaideep Sengupta. The Influence of Base Rate and Case Information on Health Risk Perceptions: A Unified Model of Self-Positivity and Self-Negativity. Journal of Consumer Research: February 2013.]

To further complicate this picture, in addition to Google, there are dozens of sites that provide a “symptom checker” for consumers, including WebMD, AARP, MedicineNet and others.

Have you encountered “Doctor Google” in your office? How have you dealt with these issues? We welcome your insight, comments and opinions.

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